“Our examination of the drone suggests it is quite old. While none of us are forensics experts or archeologists the parts used suggests that it can’t be much newer than the Departure. Only rudimentary nanoengineering is in evidence and the laser projectors are low power, even for lasers…”
Lang’s voice was small in the vastness of the empty desert, with barely a road sign or stand of scrub grass to echo off of. The martians had pulled off the side of the highway, hours out of the city, and thrown some kind of tarp from their box of crazy devices over the van. In a couple of seconds it had shifted to blend in with the ground around it, leaving the small campsite effectively invisible to any eyes in the air.
If Sean was right and the drone from earlier had come from their allies in space they were going to pretty extreme lengths to avoid being noticed by another one.
After the harrowing escape from town they’d driven straight through the day and finally stopped after nightfall. Dex and Lang had debated the merits of driving through the night, using one of their AI – apparently a more universally applicable piece of tech than the ones Earth had developed – to drive the van for them. Lang had eventually tossed the idea not because he was worried about how well it would work but because he didn’t want to be, “an exposed, lit target at night.”
Aubrey’s attention snapped back to the voices in the distance. At some point Priss had gone out and joined Lang out by the small rock outcropping where he’d hunkered down to talk into his recorder. “I brought a digest of what we pulled off the datahub, if you wanted to attach it to the report.”
“We’re still sifting it through our AIs. But so far it’s just more mysteries. The population forty years ago was less than five and a half billion.”
“Five?! That’s barely half what the population was projected-”
Her attention snapped back to what was happening in front of her when Dex lifted the edge of the camo tarp and stepped out into the open. There was a crispness and sheen to his clothes she hadn’t seen before. “We set up a makeshift sanitation and clothes cleaning station in the back of the van,” he said. “I’m not sure what your clothes are made of but they could probably use a sprucing up and everyone enjoys a good wash now and then. Just move the big red rock in front of the door if you’re using it.”
“Thanks.” She managed a wan smile although she wasn’t really feeling it. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Dex nodded. “Food agree with you?”
“Yes? Was there any reason it shouldn’t?”
He shrugged. “We don’t know much about your nanotech. Hopefully it doesn’t have some hidden dietary requirement we don’t know about.”
“If there is, we’re not the ones to ask about it.” She sighed. “Look, Dex. We’ll complain if something is out of line. So far, food is one of the few places where that’s not likely to happen. Enjoy it while it lasts.”
Dex flashed her a quick, charming grin. “Spoken like a true spacer. Get some sleep, we’re leaving at first light tomorrow.”
She nodded and waited until he had walked away before focusing on the distant voices again.
“-need to focus on getting us back into orbit,” Lang was saying. “I can’t be tempted to run after phantoms that may explain why everything changed. Report your theory in your personal log and keep an eye out for evidence that may support it. But we’re not going out of our way to investigate. What we already know is already an intelligence goldmine, in needs to get back to the fleet.”
“It’s your call,” Priss replied. “We’ve got the sanitizer set up in the van. Be sure to get cleaned up, it’ll help you think better.”
“Sure. I’ll run myself through before I pass out tonight.” It didn’t sound like he was going to make a serious effort at remembering it, though.
Aubrey lay back on her sleeping bag and looked up at the stars, trying to make some sense of it all. The martians were awfully attached to their records and their books. Back in Dallas they’d be considered pretty boring, stick in the mud types. Then again, when things around them did get exciting it was a little more than she was comfortable with. A lot more, actually. They were a mystery all around.
A few minutes later Priss walked back into what passed for their campsite, dressed not in the glossy shelled suits the martians had been wearing since they first met but a more form fitting coverall with a many pocketed belt. She was still armed with some kind of pistol on one hip but she didn’t cut quite as dangerous looking a figure as she normally did. Priss went over to her pile of gear and fished out another of the recording devices like Lang had and walked over to lean against one of the big, self-propelled boxes the martians kept they toys in.
Aubrey pushed herself up on her elbows to get a better look and said, “You guys sure seem to like those things.”
“What, this?” Priss held up the recorder. “No one likes a noose. That’s why we gave the big one to Lang.”
“What’s a noose?”
An exasperated look crossed Priss’ face. “Right, you probably never heard of hangings, have you?”
“Only the kind that go on walls.” She sat up and crossed her legs pretzel style. “I get the feeling that’s not what you’re talking about.”
“No. Hanging was a kind of execution – barbaric, I know, I know.” Aubrey closed her mouth over her complaint and Priss pressed on. “Even we debate their usefulness and morality, trust me. But I’ve always felt someone who’s entrusted with the power of lethal force should really face the potential for lethal retaliation so I’ve got no problem with spacers or soldiers having to face execution from time to time.”
“But what does that have to do with your recordings?” Aubrey asked, still trying to puzzle that out.
“Spacers used to wear the log recorders on lanyards so they wouldn’t get away from us in zero gravity.” She mimed the recorder dangling from her neck. “Nooses go around the neck, and so… it’s a noose.”
“No, what does recording things have to do with an execution?”
Priss actually laughed at that. “Well, because any time there’s a record of what you’ve done it’s the first step in getting caught in a mistake. The mission log has been the primary evidence used to convict dozens of spacer commanders of negligence or criminal behavior.”
“But they’re the ones that record it!” Aubrey protested, agog. “How does that help you catch them doing something wrong?! All they have to do is say they did everything right.”
Priss started to reply, then stopped herself and thought for a moment. “You work with the traffic control AI in your city, right?”
“Yes…” Aubrey was trying to track with the change of subject but couldn’t.
“How do you tell when something has gone wrong?”
“Well, generally the AI just comes to us with a traffic hang-up it can’t diagnose or, more rarely, a set of conflicting priorities it can’t sort out.” Aubrey pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, crossing her legs at the ankles and thinking for a moment. “There’s also a transponder in vehicles that can ping the system for attention when they aren’t getting instructions from the traffic AI or the directions are contradictory. Or the vehicle has just been kept in one place for longer than five minutes. And there’s a communications line people can contact directly if they feel their case needs attention, although that happens about once a year so it’s not common.”
Priss nodded, her brow furrowed. “See, that’s what I don’t get. You understand diagnostic communication in mechanical contexts but not social ones. That’s basically how you catch negligence, human error and flat out dishonesty via logs. Take my old ship, the Armstrong. Now if the log says it was destroyed in orbit we know something’s gone wrong and we start investigating – ships aren’t supposed to be destroyed outside of a scrapyard. If the Armstrong’s captain reports the ship is intact but several members of the crew report it was destroyed using these,” she held up her own log recorder, “then we know something went wrong, otherwise the crew wouldn’t disagree on what happened. And, of course, you can always go and look yourself. If someone told me the Armstrong was fine but I couldn’t find the ship in orbit – or wherever else it was supposed to be – then I’d know something was wrong and that they were lying to me.”
“That…” Aubrey thought about arguing whether all this lying was really going on or what good it did but stopped herself. She had plenty of first hand experience that told her this was just how they thought – paranoid certainty. “Nevermind. What are you going to record?”
Priss sat up a little straighter, looking proud of herself. “My theory of what happened in the last two hundred years.”
That got Aubrey’s attention. “You have one? Did you get that much out of the datahub we stopped at?”
“Not really, but there were two major discrepancies that I did notice.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “One, no mention of Unified Field Theory technologies. And I’m not just talking about gravity fields or superluminal drives. They don’t even talk about simple things like gravitic power generators, which were in development at the time of Departure. Second, none of the major terraforming projects that were slated seem to have been carried out. I found a reference to Cairo as the capitol of Egypt, even though it was supposed to move to Thebes once the terraformers finished with the desert in that region. For that matter,” she gestured at the desert around them. “There’s this. Pretty sure this was supposed to be terraformed too.”
“Where do you get all this knowledge about terraforming plans from?” Aubrey asked, more curious than skeptical.
“I may have a degree in communications technology, with a minor in communications theory, but my parents were terraformers from a family of terraformers.” She said it with a certain air of pride. “They knew the science backwards and forwards and they were always musing about how nations on Earth might be executing environmental renovation with the greater resources they had on hand. The Sahara project was supposed to start only a few years after the Departure and a lot of terraformers loved theorizing about it. I don’t think I’m going to mention to my parents how little actually got done if I ever see them again. The spacer daughter is disappointment enough.”
“Okay…” There was a rabbit trail she didn’t want to go down. “So no Unified Field Theory, whatever that is, and no terraforming. How is that enough to build a theory?”
“They’re both technologies directly tied to planetary colonization.”
Priss scooted closer and lowered her voice, although Aubrey wasn’t sure who she feared would overhear her. “Do you know what a sodomite is?”
Again a strange twist in the conversation, again she couldn’t follow. But this time she at least knew the answer. “Someone who likes anal sex.”
“Yes but-” Priss pinched the bridge of her nose. “No books. Right, do you know the origin of the word?”
“Origin?” She rolled that over in her mind. Naturally she didn’t know the origin of the word – who thought about things like that? Other than people with degrees in communication theory, apparently. “No. I don’t know the origin of the word.”
“It comes from the Bible, a book I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of-”
Priss ignored the interjection. “-that mentions a city called Sodom who’s residents wanted to rape men who were passing through town. Who wanted to sodomize them. The story says the city was destroyed as a result.”
“That’s a fucked up story,” Aubrey said, leaning slightly away from Priss and taking a sudden interest in the scrub brush around the camp site.
“Sodomite,” Priss said, continuing to ignore her interruptions, “came to be a pejorative aimed at a sexual fetish and eventually most people forgot it was connected to the city at all. But originally it was the name for a group of people who were justly punished for attempting a terrible crime.”
“I don’t see how that explains anything-”
But Priss was on a roll now, jumping to her feet and pacing, gesturing to illustrate points. “You see, it’s the nature of language to devolve over time. Language is at its best when it’s very specific, because then the words have the most meaning. Sodomites were a specific group of people loathed for crimes against another specific group. But over time the word becomes more general – sodomites were anyone who were vaguely interested in a fringe sex practice, unfairly painting that larger group of people with some of the guilt of the original Sodomites. It’s a classic example of how a term for a disliked group of people can become a general smear for any outsider that seems vaguely threatening. Just like happened here on Earth shortly after the departure.”
Aubry shook her head, dismissing the whole line of reasoning as silly. “Priss, that’s impossible. The trademark of sapiens societies is inclusion, not exclusion-”
“Oh, but you do!” Priss exclaimed, crouching back down and crowding Aubrey, her eyes full of the excited light of someone who’d pulled a prank on another. “You do have an exclusionary term, Aubrey, you’ve been calling us it since we got here. And I think you took it from the people Earth fought and destroyed a short time after the Departure. The Martians.”